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Remaking a memoir
With a new autobiography, former geisha Mineko Iwasaki seeks to reclaim a history she believes was tarnished in the best-selling novel Memoirs of a Geisha

IN THE COURSE of my research, I am indebted to one individual above all others," writes Arthur Golden in the acknowledgments of his best-selling novel, 1997ís Memoirs of a Geisha (Knopf). "Mineko Iwasaki, one of Gionís top geisha in the 1960s and 1970s, opened her Kyoto home to me during May 1992, and corrected my every misconception about the life of a geisha.... To Mineko, thank you for everything."

Fast-forward five years. Today, Golden and Iwasaki are embroiled in a lawsuit over his fictionalized account of her life as a geisha (also called geiko), and neither is talking about the issues in dispute, including Goldenís assertion that Iwasaki sold her virginity for $720,000 as part of her mizuage, or coming-of-age ceremony. Instead, Iwasaki has recently published her own book, Geisha, A Life (Atria Books, 2002), in which she seeks to shed light on a world that for centuries has been shrouded in mystery and which she claims has been, as a result, widely misunderstood. Speaking through translator Rande Brown, with whom she collaborated on Geisha, A Life, Iwasaki talks about the book, her life as a geisha, and the most common misperceptions about the profession at which she was so successful.

Q: I understand that youíre not able to talk about Arthur Golden and his book Memoirs of a Geisha. Can you explain why youíre not able to talk about it?

A: Iím not at liberty to speak about my relationship to Arthur Golden, or his book, as we are close to a settlement, and a press release will be coming out shortly.

Q: Why did you decide to write your book?

A: There were a number of reasons why I wanted to write this book. The two probably strongest reasons are because I believe there was a lot of misunderstandings about what it means to be a geiko or a geisha, both in Japan and in the West, and I felt honor bound to do what I could to correct those misunderstandings. And the other reason is because ever since I retired 30 years ago, I have been very concerned about reforming the geisha system as it exists in Japan, because I feel itís an outmoded system, and I want to improve the lives of the women who are working there. The geisha system was founded, actually, to promote the independence and economic self-sufficiency of women. And that was its stated purpose, and it actually accomplished that quite admirably in Japanese society, where there were very few routes for women to achieve that sort of independence. But in this day and age, it doesnít seem to be moving forward.

Q: What are the common misconceptions that you want to clear up?

A: The most common misconception is that geisha are somehow high-class courtesans, or prostitutes. And that is very much not the case. And also, geisha are not submissive and subservient, but in fact they are some of the most financially and emotionally successful and strongest women in Japan, and traditionally have been so.

Q: Why do you think these misconceptions got started?

A: The first reason that this happened, I believe, is that historically there were licensed pleasure quarters in Japan, and the women who worked there as courtesans and high-class prostitutes were in fact indentured; they were not even allowed to leave the area. And we, the artisans, the female entertainers, we were actually free to come in and leave the district. And our purposes were very different. We were there to entertain, and we never sold ourselves, our bodies, for money. That was not the purpose of what we did; that was what the other women did. And it was very clear in the licensing arrangements and the indenture arrangements [that] the two roles were very separate. And then in 1873, the pleasure quarters were actually outlawed, and it became illegal. And from that time, there has been a growing confusion about the nature of the two roles. I think that that is the basis of the confusion.

The second answer is because the world of the geisha, the "flower and willow world," is a very separate society that is shrouded in mystery. The myths that have been created by outsiders about the environment and the lifestyle of the geisha world have pretty much been able to grow unchecked, in a way. And because it was very separate, and a very elitist world, and one that was supposed to be kept private, people were not particularly comfortable speaking about it.

Q: What was the collaborative process with Rande Brown like?

A: It was a very interesting experience, because of course I donít understand exactly what Westerners are going to understand or not understand, and so sometimes we would get into arguments, and we struggled a bit to reach a common point of view, but it was very satisfying, actually for both of us, that Rande forced me to explain things that I mightíve thought were self-evident. So I think it became a better book because of that.

Q: Why did you seem to have so much trouble getting along with other geiko, getting them to like you?

A: The basic reason is because I was the most successful of the group. And because it is a system that is ranked, it was always clear who was at the top, and everyone was working very, very hard, and everyone was rehearsing very hard, practicing very hard, and I was the one who rose to the top. So even the girls who I thought were my friends, there was always back-biting going on, and there was always a lot of gossip, and thatís because everyone was very competitive.

Q: Why were the geisha so competitive?

A: I think itís because it was an issue of pride. Because we were publicly ranked, and people knew who was earning the most and was the most in demand, and everyone wanted to be in a higher position. Itís human nature, especially for the age group. We were teenagers, adolescents, which is always a very sensitive age.

Q: In the book, you say you didnít know how to have fun because you were always working. Do you think, looking back, that that was a healthy way to grow up? Or would you choose to do things differently now?

A: This is a difficult question for me to answer because this is all I knew as a child. It was my life as a child, and it was very compelling and it was very interesting. When I went to the dance studio and I was rehearsing and practicing and learning, that was like play for me. But it wasnít what most people consider play. When I did go out with my girlfriends, because of the jealousy issues and because also I felt like they didnít have anything to teach me, and I was very interested [in] learning as much as I could at that time, I was more interested in older people. And so I sought out my older geisha sisters. And then when I started to work, I was very interested in my clients, the men and women, what they had to teach me. So I really was never interested in sort of what you might call "age-appropriate behavior." However, when my daughter was born, I tried to give her as normal a childhood as possible, and she had a very bright, happy, normal, playful childhood. But I donít look back on it and think that I missed out on anything or that I lost anything, simply that I had a very different upbringing than many other children.

Q: How did you know how to provide your daughter with what you call a normal childhood, not having had one yourself?

A: Itís like she brought me up at the same time I was bringing her up. She taught me how to be a mother, and I taught her how to be a child. She taught me more than I taught her about how to raise a happy child.

Q: Talk to me about the mizuage ceremony. What is it, and why is there so much confusion about it?

A: This again goes back to the separation between the pleasure quarter and the entertainment quarter. Mizuage is really a coming-of-age ceremony, and apparently there was some selling of the virginity that went on in association with that ritual ceremony in the pleasure district a long time ago. However, that has never been true for the geisha. For the geisha, it was simply when they were becoming a young woman, similar to a sweet 16 in the West, and it was symbolized by the change in hairstyle, into a more womanly, grown-up hairstyle. And also certain subtle changes in the ensembles. There are a lot of rites of passage, but for some reason this one has been really latched on by people, and maybe itís because of this misunderstanding.

Also, it is true that as with many of the rituals and rites of passage, once one has become a maiko [geisha-in-training], or a geiko, itís very expensive, because every time you go through an entire change of kimono, for example, or of hairstyle and you need different hair ornaments, these are expensive things. For me, I was the successor to the house, the atotori, so there was no question that the money was there to provide this. But if someone is coming from the outside and training, as basically someone who is there under contract, it is expensive, and sometimes they do ask their patrons to help pay for the cost involved in making the transition.

Q: But their virginity isnít offered in exchange for that help?

A: That is never on the table. There is one other potential source of confusion, and that is with the word "mizuage" itself. In the Gion, the geisha district, and in many areas of the entertainment industry, "mizuage" is also a term that directly means "gross earnings," because itís an old fishing term; as you may know, Japan was dependent on fishing for one of its main economic bases for many years. "Mizuage" means "to take out of the water." It stood for the catch. "What was your catch?" ó "How much money did you make from the water?" So when I refer to mizuage, Iím actually referring to my earnings, rather than the ceremony itself.

Q: Why did you decide to retire at such an early age?

A: I started training as a geiko when I was very, very young, and I had a very full life doing it, but I never felt that it was my entire destiny. I felt like there were other things out there for me to do, and there were other possibilities, other things I would want to accomplish. And I also knew that as my life as a geiko was so all-consuming, that I would never really see those things, I could never really realize those things if I was still working as a geiko. This includes marriage and children and other artistic ventures. So I really did it because I felt like one stage of my life was coming to an end, and I wanted to see what the next stage was going to be. So it was really as a way of opening myself to the future.

Q: Did your retirement spur any of the changes to the geisha system that you hoped it would?

A: As I wrote in the book, that is what I was hoping, and after I retired, many other people retired too, but the powers that be in fact have changed things very little. And the minor changes that they have made, they all think are these very significant changes, but looking at it from my position now, I feel that fundamentally the system has not changed, and in that sense, no, my retirement was not effective.

Q: What do you hope people will learn from reading your account of geisha life?

A: I hope that this book will encourage people everywhere, especially but not only women, to really seek out their own independence and self-sufficiency, and help people have the confidence to identify and realize their dreams.

Q: What is your life like now?

A: Right now my life is extremely peaceful and extremely bright and satisfying. Iím surrounded by very beautiful things and very talented people. I have a very talented husband, and we have a lovely, traditional Japanese-style home, with a Japanese-style garden. Iím very satisfied with life right now.

Q: If your daughter had come to you as a small child and said that she wanted to become a geiko, what would you have done?

A: Actually, I was hoping that my daughter would express interest in becoming a geiko, but she didnít. Sheís very shy herself, and sheís very introspective. When she was four or five, we would go to the dance often, and I would say to her, "Arenít the maiko beautiful?" And she would say, "Yes, they are really beautiful." And I would say, "Would you be interested in becoming a maiko?" I didnít want to push her, but I wanted to let her know that the opportunity was there, and she was like, "No, I could never do that." And she does dance, and she does like it, but the idea of stepping out in public ó which is interesting, because I was like that as well, but I was raised in a different set of circumstances. So I myself would have been thrilled.

Q: Why?

A: Because aesthetically I think it is a marvelous education for young women. And I would have seen to it that the other aspects of her education were taken care of. I still feel that even though there was a lot of drama involved, my experience was irreplaceable.

Tamara Wieder can be reached at twieder[a]

A complete archive of our weekly Q&As
Issue Date: October 10 - October 17, 2002
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